Renault, the giant French carmaker, has announced that it would like to deploy a combination of drones and e-bikes from its delivery vans in an effort to make last-mile courier work more efficient. This would amount to some significant consolidation in the last-mile delivery process by Renault. However, it is fair to say this is nothing new with several other technology companies occupying the same sort of space. For example, big national courier firms in North America and Europe currently already frequently partner with a network of local courier service providers to complete their domestic supply chain services. What the French manufacturer is proposing will put a new twist on how this works, however, with an almost unique approach to last-mile consolidation. What has Renault been developing?
To be clear, Renault, as a multinational manufacturer that operates in global markets, is not looking to do the traditional thing that many technology companies have been attempting – to consolidate the last-mile courier sector – but to change the way last-mile deliveries are conducted. In truth, this means a shift in last-mile modes with an accompanying change in mindsets among couriers. The company, which has its headquarters in Paris, announced in May from the French capital that it would be combining electric cargo bikes, delivery drones and electric vans within a single system that would herald the dawn of a new era in the last-mile delivery concept. If successful, its plans could make a significant difference in the sector, not least in the UK where Renault already possesses a significant market share.
Because Renault has developed what it regards to be a total business solution for the last-mile courier sector, it has needed to come up with a name for the concept that tries to convey what it is all about. Renault’s marketing executives have come up with E-Tech Master OptiModale, a name that might not be that memorable but which gets the conceptual shift across. Some commentators in the United States have already dubbed the OptiModale systems a triple threat to the current last-mile market, something that could affect smaller operators particularly adversely if take-up of the system ends up high.
E-Tech Master OptiModale is made up of an electrically powered delivery van which, on its own, is hardly a groundbreaking concept. However, the custom-built body of the van doesn’t just allow it to convey multiple parcels for both commercial and domestic deliveries but it also means that the vehicle is able to deploy both e-bikes and drones when it is optimally efficient to do so for the final part of the journey. According to Grahame Neagus, who heads up the light commercial vehicles division for Renault Trucks in the UK and Ireland, the OptiModale concept not only allows for greater flexibility in last-mile courier work but is more sustainable than current operating modes, too.
Speaking to the world’s press, Neagus said that the new Renault Trucks E-Tech Master OptiModale vans would be able to help the world address the urgent need to improve the quality of air in urban environments by generating less pollution in cities from deliveries. Neagus reckons that this can be done while improving accessibility for couriers and boosting the operational productivity of operators at the same time. “By making use of more than one mode of electric transport,” he said, “OptiModale represents an all-in-one solution that is not only sustainable but an approach that will transform the fast-growing parcel delivery market.” What’s more, Neagus claimed that the new courier solution was one that could be replicated successfully in any market in the world.
Multiple Delivery Options
So, on the face of it, although Renault’s principal offering is an electric van, the business solution will rely on multiple delivery options being deployed at the final stage of the process to maximise operational efficiency. That being said, as all self-employed courier drivers will already know, it is the van – as a business proposition – that will lay at the heart of the offering. As such, it is worth looking a little more closely at what is on offer with the OptiModale solution in terms of van capacity. To be clear, this is not a hybrid solution but an all-electric, 3.5-tonne van officially referred to as the L3H1 E-Tech Master van. The vehicle sports a low wheelbase cab. Power is supplied via an R75 electric motor which comes with a 33kWh battery pack. This means that it can be driven in the region of 80 miles between charges, so the overall solution is only likely going to suit urban delivery drivers to begin with until the range can be improved somewhat.
Nevertheless, it is what else the E-Tech Master van comes supplied with that marks it out as a new last-mile delivery solution and not just another electrically powered van. To begin with, a four-metre-long low loader Luton body designed by Horton Commercials is attached to the van’s cab. According to Renault, this functions as the van’s ‘mothership’. This part of the vehicle comes supplied with a folding shelving system that is designed for modern parcel deliveries, helping to present each consignment in the most efficient manner possible for the operator. Crucially, it also has a heli-drone pad system that the operator can use to deploy delivery drones in appropriate locations. What’s more, there is an electric cargo bike storage bay. As such, the E-Tech Master van possesses a bike lift that allows the operator to deploy e-bikes directly, too.
Although the combination of an electric van serving as a localised yet mobile base of operations with drones is likely to cause the greatest amount of interest in the OptiModale system, the inclusion of the e-bike should not be overlooked. This is because this is among the most established of technologies Renault has chosen to include within the business solution. Essentially, this is because the e-bike Renault has selected for the Optimodale solution the flagship model made by Larry vs. Harry of Denmark, the eBullitt. Currently available on the UK market on its own for a price tag that is in excess of £5,000, the e-bike is capable of hauling up to 100 kilos worth of smaller parcels.
As such, it is a significant decision from the French vehicle manufacturer to buy in an e-bike that already has some traction in the marketplace rather than to develop its own, bespoke two-wheeler. Perhaps this is because the eBullitt offers up to 31 miles of assisted cycling on a single charge which is likely to be more than enough for a van that is only probably going to be travelling around 80 miles over the course of a working day. Note, however, that once the e-bike is back on board the E-Tech Master van, its battery can be fully replenished within four hours from the van’s remaining supply.
Located on top of the electric bike storage unit and lift is where Renault has chosen to place the system’s retractable heli-drone pad. Like the eBullitt bike, this system is bought in and not something that Renault has designed from scratch, again pointing to the fact that the French manufacturer is looking for a reliable and established system from day one for the OptiModale solution. The pad allows parcel-carrying drones made by UAVTEK to be deployed. UVATEK is a British-based company that is best known for its Magpie drone system, the one Renault has opted for here. This is a quadcopter model. The drone is able to able to transport about two kilos of payload for almost 40 minutes depending on the weather conditions. According to Renault, this is the ideal drone for the most time-sensitive deliveries because it is able to bypass traffic congestion or to take more direct routes over the countryside and watercourses in a consistently reliable manner.
Perhaps surprisingly for a last-mile delivery solution that is built around operational efficiency, however, OptiModale has been designed as a two-person system. Under the concept Renault has envisaged, one member of the team will take charge of the van while the other team member wither takes the e-bike into areas the van cannot easily reach or deploys the Magpie delivery drone from the top of the van. In this regard, Renault’s solution isn’t that different from an approach Amazon announced in 2021. Whether or not two people running one last-mile delivery service will be as efficient as either the executives at Amazon or Renault think it could be remains to be seen, however.
Despite this question mark, Renault is committed to this commercial arena for the longer term, it seems. Renault’s research and development investment into last-mile mobility solutions is high and conducted now through its Mobilize brand. Mobilize has been given the task of innovating and testing technologies for electric and autonomous vehicles throughout the group as the French carmaker seeks to support carbon neutrality and take steps towards a more circular economy. This may be the last time, therefore, that Renault announces such a courier-focussed business solution with bought-in, third-party equipment.